Last year, one day when I was back home from IISc during some holidays, Upappa slid a newspaper clipping up to me while we were sitting in his room. It was an illustration of a fountain pen, the sort that appeared on student’s corner pages in malayalam dailies.

Something about the way the neatly torn paper was folded and extracted from his everything-diary that was always at the foot of his bed was so endearing. He wanted me to get a pen like that for him. I joked about why he’d want one now, and he told me he wanted it for all the stories he had yet to write.

When it came to fountain pens, Upappa and I had history. There was a time between 4th and 6th grade when Lulu and I were living with Upappa and Ummamma, when Umma had her teaching posting in a little village in Kasargod and Pappa was in Dubai. We were only allowed to use fountain pens in school, and you could get a handy Hero pen for 30rs, which was the one I had. Every night I’d go to fill ink from Upappa’s very tidily kept shelf, and one day I realised the pen he had on his shirt pocket was a fountain pen as well - a Parker, which glided so well, made you fall in love with writing, and was also slightly expensive.

I vaguely recollect Upappa being super exasperated by his absent minded grandchild borrowing his well-loved pen so many times. I think I might have been the one that finally broke it. It seemed reasonable then that I should be the one to get one for him now, fifteen years later. The grandchild in me was happy he even made the request, newspaper cutting and all. It felt like an acknowledgement of not just a shared history, but of how far we’ve all come. I ordered one and gave it to him the next time I visited.

July 2018.

July 2018.

He was always so well groomed, with pressed shirts and a pen in his front pocket, even while bedridden at home after his many falls. I learned how to iron my clothes after seeing him iron our uniforms, during those early years we lived with him and Umamma in Mangad. (Later on, our roles reversed when I joined them again during bachelors - he liked wearing pressed shirts even at home, and we’d have a weekly back-and-forth about how many shirts I could iron for him in one go. I never did enough.)

During covid, when his health anxiety was at its peak and his hair the longest it had ever grown, one day Upappa asked me if I could cut it for him.

I laughed, skeptical. Upappa’s hair had a fanbase of its own. It’s been white and fluffy for as long as we could all remember, way before it should have turned white and fluffy. He had too many tales to tell about how people would come up to him on the streets and ask him if it was a wig, or if he had purposefully dyed it white given how even the coloring was; sounding both embarrassed and proud at the same time while narrating them. Being asked to put my hands and scissors on this family treasure felt both like an immense blessing and a significant test.

After a bit more convincing (mostly him saying its okay if you let me go bald and me saying I don’t want such a crime on my hands), we got down to it. I wrapped his old mundu around him and painstakingly started chopping. White hair slowly collected in chunks on the floor, fragile, snowy. It ended up taking me over an hour to feel satisfied with the task. It wasn’t perfect - but it wasn’t also a disaster, all things considered. That day, he proclaimed as we sat down for dinner that it was the best hair cut he ever had. We both knew it was not true, but it was probably necessary in his eyes to get me back to cutting it again for him in the future.

I’d go on to cut his hair six more times, and each time he’d insist enthusiastically at the end how good of a hairdresser I was - until one day last year when I came back home from IISc, saw freshly cropped hair and realized he didn’t need me for it anymore, and felt a sudden pang of loss for this ritual we had unexpectedly built together.

October 2023.

October 2023.

A few months ago, Lulu mentioned in passing about a Parker pen Upappa gave her. I realise what might have happened, and feel crushed. It was less about him passing on something that felt significant, and more to do with this nagging thought: what about all the stories he said he wanted to write? I bring this up to mamma, and upon hearing about my dismay he sends me an audio on whatsapp with her help. He was so exhausted constantly and feeling lazy all the time and not writing as planned anyway and he felt like Lulu deserved to have it more, and could I please forgive him?

Now that I look back, that exhaustion had become so visible in the past year, but I was adamant about not giving it further meaning. Last month when I visited from Delhi he had on a wrinkled shirt, and when I asked him unprompted if he wanted me to iron any for him, he didn’t let me. He kept dozing off in different parts of the house, his thoughts always a little far away even while awake. He paid less attention to stories, didn’t ask too many questions, was unengaged in conversations.

Maybe I should have known then, and pressed a shirt regardless. Maybe I should have sat down next to him for longer, even if in silence. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

July 2021. Photo by Pia.

July 2021. Photo by Pia.

Upappa left us early last Saturday. He was always reading, always on the search for more knowledge. He encouraged the same of his children and grandchildren. He wanted us to learn well and top our exams (and have our pictures in the papers he read), get good jobs and stand on our own feet. He wanted to hear all our stories, of events at college or of little trips to places he couldn’t visit.

He was flawed, he was idealistic, he was a man that tried to change with the times. He was our Upappa, and he will be deeply, deeply missed by the ones he left behind.